Friday, December 30, 2011

A Private Window on a Nation: Asghar Farhadi Talks "A Separation"

       Few films have been more universally received than A Separation, an Iranian drama from director Asghar Farhadi. The film won multiple prizes at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, and has gone to play to standing ovations at Telluride, Toronto, and here in New York on the festival scene. It will also contend for the Oscars as the official selection by the nation of Iran, surprisingly for a film that deals so bleakly with issues of class, religion, and gender that plague Iranian society. Perhaps though, no one can deny the power of Mr. Farhadi, who spoke about the reasons for making his film back when the film played the New York Film Festival.

On deciding to make the film and the entry point to the script.

When I started breaking the story I can’t point my finger to what it was or how it was that got constructed in my head…I was already working on another film [outside Iran] that I had planned for two years but one day, I really felt I wanted to go back to Iran and do a film there, and that feeling became stronger, and two days later I was back in Iran. The first image that came to my mind was a man who had Alzheimer’s disease and that image was stuck in my head that entire afternoon.

Working with his own daughter, who plays the daughter in the family

Before starting to write this script for the film, I was in a period of taking care of my daughter—taking her to school and bringing her back every day. We were in very close company with each other and would talk and discuss things, and I thought this could be represented in my films. When I was writing my story, my daughter kept coming back to my mind as the person who could be perfect for this role. I thought, perhaps, this could be ideal, and easy for us to do so, because we had that time period together. But as it turns out, it was a lot more difficult than I planned on. When I asked the other actors to do certain things, they usually accepted very fast. It was either they had seen my previous work, or out of respect since I was the director. It was a lot more difficult with my daughter. Whatever I asked her to do, she always had a why to ask. And it would drive me crazy! But the good thing that happened was that [Peyman Moaadi], who plays the father, was getting closer and closer to my daughter. They were bonding really well. And he had another job, so my daughter would spend time in his office, and they started getting closer together.

A Separation: Family On the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

A Separation
Written and Directed By: Asghar Farhadi
Starring: Peyman Moaadi, Leila Hatami, Sareh Bayat, Sarina Farhadi, Shahab Hosseini, Merila Zare’i, Ali-Asghar Shahbazi, and Babak Karimi
Director of Photography: Mahmoud Kalari, Editor: Hayedeh Safiyari, Production Designer: Keyvan Moghaddam, Original Music: Sattar Oraki

The political state of Iran might feel like the elephant in the room in Asghar Farhadi’s masterful A Separation, but the film cloyingly acknowledges its Western spectators during the opening sequence. We watch from the point of view of a judge as a man and woman come for a divorce. Simin (Leila Hatami) wants to leave the state and because her husband Naader (Peyman Moaadi) won’t join her, she wants a divorce. She tells the judge she doesn’t want to raise her daughter in such a state. When the judge asks her to describe what is wrong with the state of Iran, she acts ambivalently toward the question. The truth, we later learn, is that she has no intention of leaving, and it is actually a much smaller, but in many ways, much greater difficulty that haunts her.

           That’s the crux of why Mr. Farhadi’s film is a much more human drama than anything else. Obviously in the United States, it is difficult to watch a film like A Separation without commenting on the tyrannical power that might be lingering just below the surface. But perhaps let’s consider the narrative and style on the terms the film wants to subscribe. Few films, even those by masterful Iranian directors like Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi, give a really day-to-day life or Iran and the issues that face those who never take to the streets. What we thus find in A Separation is a wondrously observed legal drama that provides endless complexity and moral quandaries that offer no easy answers.

Pariah: Out of the Closet in a Brooklyn Brownstone

Written and Directed By: Dee Rees
Starring: Adepero Oduye, Pernell Walker, Aasha Davis, Charles Parnell, and Kim Wayans
Director of Photography: Bradford Young, Editor: Mako Kamitsuna, Production Designer: Inbal Weinberg
Rated: R for the stuff that happens when you enter adulthood.

            The glowing lights hang through the palette of Dee Rees’s Pariah, a coming of age and coming out story of a young girl in Brooklyn. These lights, lovingly shot by director of photography Bradford Young, are unfocused, always hanging in the distant. We’re not sure what they are—most likely just headlights of cars off in the distant—but there presence creates the longing of Pariah’s young protagonist, Alike, who knows there’s a better world out there for her, but never sure what it is.

            Pariah on its premise feels like the typical fare released out of the Sundance Film Festival, and with the democratization of film (and more importantly, digital video), it can be tough to stay out of the pack and feel original. Especially with the breakout of Lee Daniels’s Precious only two years ago, Pariah’s urbanized environments and focus on a solely black culture give it a feeling that we’ve been here before, even if we haven’t. But there’s something that Ms. Rees, who based this story on her own young life, can’t have taken away from her, and that’s the authenticity in much of her narrative, and especially that of her young star Adepero Oduye.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo: A Twisted Hero for Twisted Times

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
Directed By: David Fincher
Written By: Steve Zallian, based on the novel by Stieg Larsson
Starring: Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgard, and Robin Wright
Director of Photography: Jeff Cronenweth, Editors: Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall, Production Designer: Donald Graham Burt, Original Music: Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross
Rated: R for hard violence, rape, and all the other stuff to support your anti-holiday cheer.

            The pitch-perfect sequence in David Fincher’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is also one of the most unmemorable sequences in the film. Journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is led around the yard outside the mansion of millionaire Henrik Vagner (Christopher Plummer), who has changed Blomkvist with investigating his family. Henrik explains each member of his family, where they live, and who talks to who. But Mr. Fincher’s camera refuses to let our eyes process this information. He cuts to shots of each home of each family member, and refuses to orient the spatial relationship of these homes to each other, just that they all surround each other. This reflects not only the script’s suggestions that the closest people to us are often the ones that hurt us the most, but more so, Fincher’s deconstruction of the investigative process. The textual information is displayed concretely and without flourish, but because the director refuses to reinforce each detail with visual information, we remain lost to the mystery.

            If Zodiac, Fincher’s cult classic masterpiece about the true-life serial killer in San Francisco, was all about making audience as obsessive as the characters solving an unknown case, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo does the opposite. The answer to the central mystery is slapping us in the face, but because Fincher constantly disorients us with his bold and anti-genre compositions, it remains more of a character piece. And thus, the American director of Fight Club and The Social Network has done the best job he can in adapting the tepid, international best-seller by Stieg Larsson. Why the Swedish novels became an extravaganza still remains something of a mystery—the narratives are built on the same twist-heavy lackluster prose that launched Dan Brown, but include intense violence and rape as well. Perhaps thought, that comes down to the film’s titular character, here played by Rooney Mara (last seen breaking up with Mark Zuckerberg in the opening of The Social Network).

War Horse: Bonds Beyond the Trenches

War Horse
Directed By: Steven Spielberg
Written By: Lee Hall and Richard Curtis, based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo
Starring: Jeremy Irvine, Peter Mullan, Emily Watson, Niels Arestrup, David Thewlis, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Celine Bickens, and Eddie Marsan
Director of Photography: Janusz Kaminski, Editor: Michael Khan, Production Designer: Rick Carter, Original Music: John Williams
Rated: PG-13 for war-related and horse-related violence.

            The usual argument that someone will come across when discussing the work of Hollywood blockbuster and box office king Steven Spielberg is that he’s a sentimentalist. His success, whether in terms of gigantic spectacle (Close Encounters, Jurassic Park) or serious drama (Schindler’s List, Munich) is that in the end, he’s somewhat of a pushover when it comes to trying to break through to our emotions, often going right for the artery in trying to activate our tear ducts.

            Certainly one can simplify what Mr. Spielberg does by that word, but I’ve always read it as something more complex. Instead, the filmmaker believes in the power that good can sometimes triumph over cynicism, often in the darkest of times. That if we believe, than realism need not matter, and the bonds we hold—between family, friends, or perhaps even strangers—are all we need.

            These themes run throughout the veins of War Horse, Mr. Spielberg’s second feature this holiday season (after his animated Adventures of Tintin). Adapted from the novel by Michael Morpurgo, though perhaps sent into production after the runaway success of the London stage adaptation now playing on Broadway, Mr. Spielberg’s narrative follows a titular horse from its trials with a poor family in the United Kingdom, before weaving through a number of stories during the First World War.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Adventures of Tintin: The Tingles for Adventure, Drunkard and Canine in Tow

The Adventures of Tintin
Directed By: Steven Spielberg
Written By: Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright, and Joe Cornish, based on the comics by Hergé
Starring: Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Daniel Craig, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Toby Jones
Editor: Michael Kahn, Art Direction: Andrew Jones and Jeff Wisniewski, Original Music: John Williams
Rated: PG for comic book violence and fun.

            There’s one man you can’t keep your eyes off of in The Adventures of Tintin, and he’s not even on screen, and this time not even behind it. I’m of course referring to the film’s director, Hollywood wonder-boy Steven Spielberg. His presence looms large in this adaptation of the comic books by Hergé, who, while world-famous, remains mostly anonymous to American viewers, myself included. But its Mr. Spielberg’s camera—how he uses it and how he constantly reinvents the rules of modern cinema (many of which, he wrote)—that remains the constant thrill of Tintin. It’s also the downfall of his film.

            Mr. Spielberg is no stranger to adventures, and Indiana Jones seems to be in the town over from wherever globetrotting Tintin, a young and peppy journalist with an ache for adventure, must be. But here the craftsman takes on new challenges; not just the added dimension of 3D (something I really only noticed in the weight of my wallet), but going for full-scale animation. The Adventures of Tintin isn’t a classically animated world—Mr. Spielberg used the aide of Avatar director James Cameron, as well as producer Peter Jackson, to use the WETA studios and shoot the whole film in a digital landscape with actors carefully monitored to bring their performances to the cartoonish caricatures. But there’s something lifeless in Tintin, and its not just the odd uncanny valley look of the film’s characters, but its lack of a true adventure spirit, which instead feels calculated and often standard, that the reveals and boyhood adventure that has marked so much of Mr. Spielberg’s career remains absent.

Pina: Dance, Out of the Theater and Out of the Screen

Directed By: Wim Wenders
Featuring: Members of the Tanztheater Wuppertal
Director of Photography: Helene Louvart, Editor: Toni Froschhammer, Production Designer: Peter Pabst, Original Music: Thom Hanreich
Rated: PG for dancing, I assume.

            Now two years into the “three dimensional revolution,” the style has finally arrived in its most luscious and perfected use in Pina, a dance documentary from Wim Wenders, featuring the choreography of Pina Bausch. 3D became the next step in cinema after James Cameron’s Avatar, but since then, directors have struggled to find an art in creation space and depth, while studios have thrown it on top of films without any care for what use of 3D should be. Even skillful directors like Werner Herzog (Cave of Forgotten Dreams), Martin Scorsese (Hugo), and Steven Spielberg (The Adventures of Tintin) haven’t particularly cracked the 3D bubble in a way that occasionally wows but often remains flat. What exactly are we supposed to do with all this space?

            But Mr. Wenders, who has made a name both as a director of narratives (Wings of Desire) and concert documentaries (The Buena Vista Social Club), understands why 3D should be used: complete spectacle. The same could be said for the choreography of the late Ms. Bausch, whose choreography defies most structures of what we understand as dance—breaking our understanding of tradition for something new and inventive. And thus, the marriage of the two artists—Ms. Bauch as the creator and Mr. Wenders as the capturer—makes for pure magic in this total extravaganza.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol: Spy Vs. Explosions

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol
Directed By: Brad Bird
Written By: Josh Applebaum and Andre Nemec, based on the television series created by Bruce Geller
Starring: Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Paula Patton, Simon Pegg, Michael Nyqvist, Tom Wilkinson, Anil Kapoor, Lea Seydoux, and Josh Holloway
Director of Photography: Robert Elswit, Editor: Paul Hirsch, Production Designer: James D. Bissell, Original Music: Michael Giacchino
Rated: PG-13 for those explosions that always seem to follow Tom Cruise around.

            The Mission: Impossible series, which began as a television series but since 1996 has become an action vehicle for Tom Cruise, has always felt like a Rosarch test for its directors. When you see Mr. Cruise and giant explosions, what does it look like to you? For Brian De Palma, it was a film that piled on twist after twist, revealing itself as self-reflexive genre cinema. JJ Abrams put together kinetic action sequences with a devilish villain played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, which felt at times reminiscent of Lost. And the less said about John Woo’s disaster, the better. Now comes Brad Bird, the director of animated hits like Ratatouille, starting his live-action debut.

            Despite his previous work only including actors whom he can tweak through digital manipulation to every freckle (though one could argue most Hollywood flicks today do the same), Mr. Bird’s thematic work seems apt for the Mission: Impossible series. The Iron Giant played with the Cold War ideology often lying in the background of the series (it’s always the Russians!). And The Incredibles showed Mr. Bird’s love of spectacle and action, the more inventive the better. And thus, Mr. Bird takes and crafts Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol into his own movie, one that wants to wow you from beginning to end.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Wire - All Prologue: The Green Lights of Baltimore

The Wire – All Prologue

Season 2, Episode 6

Directed By: Steve Shill
Written By: David Simon, from a story by Ed Burns and Simon

Read out “The Wire” Project here. Read about the previous episode here, or click here to see the total coverage. Assume spoilers for the episode

            Why does David Simon identify with D’Angelo Barksdale more than any other character? Of all the members The Wire's sprawling cast, it is often D'Angelo who becomes a microphone for Mr. Simon’s themes. Mr. Simon never sold drugs or had a childhood that led him to prison. Sure, he spent a lot of time around drug culture (see: The Corner), but there is something truly unique about why he chooses D’Angelo; the man continues to hold onto the fact that he can escape. McNulty and the cops see that their efforts will have little effort. Stringer and the higher up drug family know they are tied to a certain life and cannot rise above it. And the port men see their livelihoods slowly fading out of existence. But D’Angelo still believes in the possibility of escape.

            But it is an impossibility, nonetheless. The highlight of “All Prologue” is a speech where D’Angelo explains The Great Gatsby to the prison book club. “There are no second acts in America,” someone quotes Fitzgerald, which inspires D’Angelo to explain that as much as we want to escape our past—our crimes, our passions, our family—we are inextricably linked to them. And many characters slowly realize in this episode that they are, in fact, tied to their past.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Carnage: Nine Rounds in a Brooklyn Home

Directed By: Roman Polanski
Written By: Roman Polanski and Yasmina Reza, based on the play by Ms. Reza
Starring: Kate Winslet, Jodie Foster, John C. Riley, and Christoph Waltz.
Director of Photography: Pawel Edelman, Editor: Herve de Luze, Production Designer: Dean Tavoularis, Original Music: Alexandre Desplat
Rated: R for nasty things said among adults

            The title Carnage seems like an appropriate title for any film by the international auteur Roman Polanski. Not that his films are particularly violent, though they have their occasional horrific moments, but the word “carnage” seems to apply to the psychological state of characters making it through Mr. Polanski’s unsettling worlds. When we think of Mr. Polanski as a filmmaker, we think of Jake Gittes staring blankly at a dead woman, Rosemary embracing her son of Satan, or a writer maliciously hit by a car, his life’s work flying into the air.

            So Carnage, shortened from the Yasmina Reza play God of Carnage, seems like an appropriate for Mr. Polanski to take on. Ms. Reza’s play was a hit in Paris, London, and here in New York on Broadway, and like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, is a 4 person actor’s showcase more than anything else. But Carnage doubles the Georges and Marthas, who slowly break down social order into manic chaos seems ripe for Mr. Polanski to play with visually and build into another one of his cinematic satires. Which is where the problem lies for this adaptation: the director doesn’t even begin to bite the apple. Mr. Polanski has some eye for composition, but he never really takes the play and makes it his own.

         Part of the problem perhaps comes from that Mr.  Polanski adapted the play with Ms. Reza herself, and besides a couple of bookended shots, the film keeps the narrative space of the play the same. Not that it should necessarily—Mr. Polanski has created some of the most terrifying small spaces in films like Repulsion and Knife in the Water. And thus we open in progress as Alan and Nancy at the Brooklyn home of Michael and Penelope. As we learn, Alan and Nancy’s son has smacked a couple of teeth out of Michael and Penelope’s son. We quickly pick up on their quirks, all of which are first seen as minor. Alan (Christoph Waltz) is a somewhat absent lawyer who can’t avoid his Blackberry. Nancy (Kate Winslet) works in finance and seems to avoid any sort of conflict. Michael (John C Riley) sells hardware appliances and seems nonchalant about the issue. And Penelope (Jodie Foster) is working on a book about Darfur and sees herself as a righteous do-gooder.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Wire - Undertow: Back In the Game

The Wire – Undertow
Season 2, Episode 5
Directed By: Steve Shill
Written By: Ed Burns, from a story by David Simon and Burns

Read out “The Wire” Project here. Read about the previous episode here, or click here to see the total coverage. Assume spoilers for the episode

            After a long break from The Wire (non-cinema issues: moving apartments, overload of work, some other stuff) I was afraid if I could jump back into the show without it losing its magic. It had been over a month, and while I had not forgotten about lonely fighter McNulty, the cautious and adaptive Stringer Bell, and the moral conundrums of Frank Sobotka, I wondered if the show would start to show fatigue, just from being more of the same. But The Wire always finds new ways to not just put its characters in new places, but make us see these characters differently. Not a complete 180 or anything, but to really understand their true convictions.

            But  “Undertow” is one of the most plot heavy episodes of The Wire. Ed Burns and director Steve Shill have no rush of plot, and nothing revelatory or shocking happens. But small nudges reveal these characters as the police attempt to break into the port culture, a self-contained world where everyone protects themselves. When Freamon, Bunk, and Russell present Grand Jury summons to a number of workers, Frank laughs in their face almost manically. He knows these guys are loyal to the end, as long as he’s loyal to them.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

We Need To Talk About Kevin: Mommy Issues

We Need To Talk About Kevin
Directed By: Lynne Ramsey
Written By: Lynne Ramsey and Rory Kinnear, based on the novel by Lionel Shriver
Starring: Tilda Swinton, John C. Riley, Ezra Miller, Jasper Newell, Rock Duer, and Ashley Gerasimovich
Director of Photography: Seamus McGarvey, Editor: Joe Bini, Production Designer: Judy Becker, Original Music: Jonny Greenwood
Rated: R for disturbing violence and a bit of sexuality.

            Thrown against the screen like paint against a canvas by Jackson Pollock, We Need to Talk About Kevin is a pop art explosion of subjective destruction. Nothing is subtle in Lynne Ramsey’s first film in almost a decade, its bold colors captured on screen without finesse and layered with abstract compositions that clash against each other like runaway trains. Ms. Ramsey’s film feels more indebted to the work of Tony Scott and Michael Bay than any art house, which may drive some out of the theaters, but its all centered around her extremely sly and brash narrative, focusing on a mother and her very troubled little son.

            Adapted by Ms. Ramsey and Rory Kinnear from the novel by Lionel Shriver, We Need to Talk About Kevin follows a mother in the wake of a high school killing spree. But she’s not the mother of one of the slain children; her son is the killer. It’s tricky and what could be banal melodramatic material for a film, but Ms. Ramsey, whose previous films include Ratcatcher and Monvern Caller, is not one to play things simple. Ms. Shriver’s novel is a series of letters to her husband following the tragedy, and Ms. Ramsey abandons all similarity to a film that makes it the subjective experience of a mind that has been fragmented and shattered.

Young Adult: Sweet Pea with a Black Inside

Young Adult
Directed By: Jason Reitman
Written By: Diablo Cody
Starring: Charlize Theron, Patton Oswalt, Patrick Wilson, Elizabeth Reaser, and Collette Wolfe.
Director of Photography: Eric Steelberg, Editor: Dana E. Glauberman, Production Designer: Kevin Thompson, Original Music: Rolfe Kent
Rated: R for nasty humor from a nasty woman.

This post has been edited for a correction to a beverage the main character drinks. It is Diet Coke, not Diet Pepsi.

            In her Oscar-winning role for Monster, Chalize Theron took her gorgeous and beautiful body and made herself ugly, gaining 30 pounds and wearing prosthetic teeth. Oscar loves to reward actresses who do something “daring,” meaning they are willing to look ugly for the camera while dolled up when it comes to the red carpet. But now comes Young Adult with Ms. Theron doing something actually daring. She’s often very beautiful in the film, dolled up with radiant locks of golden hair and glittering skin. But even more than Monster, Ms. Theron plays a character who is ugly on the inside: an alcoholic, devilish, and disaster of a woman with nothing much resembling a soul.

            And that’s the conceit of Young Adult, the new film from director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody. When these two last paired, they brought us something sweet (perhaps too sweet) with Juno, but Young Adult couldn’t be tonally more didactic. Here’s a film that is reckless in its ambition to bring us into a character that delights in the pleasures of personal vengeance and contempt for simplicity. Ms. Cody has explained in interviews that Young Adult has somewhat personal connections, but in many ways, it’s a universal film for all of us who have ever left our hometowns, and want nothing more than to go back someday and slap them all across the face.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: A Lone Wolf, Hunting His Own Pack

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Directed By: Tomas Alfredson
Written By: Peter Straughan and Bridget O’Connor, based on the novel by John le Carre
Starring: Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, David Dencik, Ciaran Hinds, Kathy Burke, John Hurt, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Tom Hardy.
Director of Photography: Hoyte Van Hoytema, Editor: Dino Jonsater, Production Designer: Maria Djurkovic, Original Music: Alberto Iglesias
Rated: R for language and some brief violence.

            When it comes to spies and the Cold War, especially across the pond in the United Kingdom, no name is more famous than James Bond. The Ian Fleming character is suave, sexy, dangerous, reckless, and everything the people want in their heroes. And then there’s George Smiley, the quiet and extremely reserved hero of a trilogy of novels by Britain’s other finest, John le Carré’. In Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Smiley never shoots a gun, much less leave the apartments he works at. He’s not particularly charismatic and women seem nonexistent to him. He’s not even part of MI6—he’s retired. But he gets the job done, and the job no one wants to take on.

            Mr. le Carré’s novels are exacting and meticulous, and the latest adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy attempts a faithful preservation of the spirit of his novel. Having not read the novel, nor seen the Alec Guinness led miniseries from 1979, I went into Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy with little idea how the Cold War tale would play out. Those expecting a James Bond will be severely disappointed, but it is in the details—the stern faces that rarely tell the truth, the subtle shifts in dialogue that unveil information, and the meticulous details of the environment that reveal secrets—that director Tomas Alfredson and his truly talented crafters bring to the film that reveal a number of pleasures.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Margaret and the Dragon Tattoo: Or Recent Going-Ons in Film Criticism

            Two big stories relating to film critics are once again bringing up questions about the role of film criticism today. Because the world needs another piece on the state of film criticism, I found this a most dire subject to write on, though I think one story highlights the other, so bear with me. The two stories individually have been getting a lot of notoriety, one for its complete idiocy and the other for its idealistic advocacy. I’ll start with the more banal story first.

            If you picked up a New Yorker yesterday and flipped to the movie section, you may have read David Denby’s review of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the highly anticipated adaptation of the Stieg Larson novel from Social Network director David Fincher and produced by Scott Rudin. In publishing the review, however, Denby broke perhaps the one big rule film critics have to follow: don’t publish your reviews until the studio says so, a so-called “embargo.” A series of emails, published by The Playlist, follow the back and forth between Denby and Rudin, which highlight the triviality on both sides. 

            To be frank, the whole thing feels like a schoolyard dick-measuring contest. But Rudin’s point to Denby that the film “has been badly damaged” by the early review is something to really scoff at. When you have a huge blockbuster like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, one knows people are going to go to it, whether or not reviews are good. How many teenage girls decided to skip out on Twilight: Breaking Dawn because David Edelstein gave it a middling review? Embargos on films let studios control the press on their films to give it the most exposure, but when it comes to a film that is going to be plastered on billboards everywhere, Rudin’s anger seems misplaced. 

            However, that doesn’t mean film critics don’t have their place, which brings me to the story of Margaret, Kenneth Lonergan’s ambitious masterpiece that came and went without much notice when released in September. Because of the film’s legal troubles, the distributor, Fox Searchlight more or less dumped the film, while the few major trades that did review somewhat dismissed it. But soon, other critics—Ben Keningsberg, Alison Wilmore, Matt Singer, Richard Brody, and Glenn Kenny, among others—caught up with it during its release and herald it a masterpiece, or at least something of merit worth more than two weeks and little advertizing. I managed to catch up with it during the second-to-last day of its theatrical release and went particularly over the moon as well.

            As Margaret disappeared from existence, however, #teammargaret, a Twitter hashtag to fight for the film’s existence was born. The whole thing played like an inside joke for film critics until last week, on the eve of the film’s UK release. With raves coming from London film critics, including a pair of five star reviews from The Guardian and The Telegraph, Slant film critic Jamie Christley launched a petition to Fox Searchlight to get the film back in discussion by making the film accessible for critics for their end-of-year awards. While that doesn’t necessarily help people who don’t get press invites, the wave of buzz led to staggering numbers in the United Kingdom--The Guardian reports a weekend gross of £4,595 ($7,170). “That number gave Margaret the highest screen average of any film on release, by some margin. This, despite the film only receiving one evening showtime per day (at 8pm), due to its hefty duration of 150 minutes.” Next weekend, Searchlight has decided to expand the film to ten screens in the UK, which rivals the entire number of screens it played in the United States.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Coriolanus: Call of Duty - Shakespearian Warfare

Directed By: Ralph Fiennes
Written By: John Logan, based on the play by William Shakespeare
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler, Brian Cox, Jessica Chastain, Vanessa Redgrave, James Nesbitt, Dragan Micanovic, Lubna Azabal, and Ashraf Barhorm
Director of Photography: Barry Ackroyd, Editor: Nicolas Gaster, Production Designer: Ricky Eyres, Original Music: Ilan Eshkeri
Rated: R for some military violence.

Modern day Shakespeare adaptations are a tricky business. Sometimes, they come in the form of teen comedies that forgo the language in order to bring in a bigger (and often more pedestrian) audience (She’s The Man; 10 Things I Hate About You). Otherwise, the coursing of the language against a modern day setting often feels like an awkward clash of sound and image. Where is Kenneth Branagh when you need him?

            But here comes the deft directorial debut of actor Ralph Fiennes in the form of the often forgotten but masterful Coriolanus, an extremely bold adaptation of the Shakespeare military history. Having seen a magnificent production of the play a couple years back, I’m always surprised that Coriolanus never gets as much love as it should. It’s a deeply cynical play with a number of strong complex issues about how our military and political leaders often use and abuse their power. Using a modern day setting but keeping certain details faithful to the play, Fiennes and screenwriter John Logan have masterfully brought together the political aspects of the Shakespeare’s play to a relevant audience in today’s age of inequality.

Sleeping Beauty: A Kiss To Awake Her From Her Horrors

Sleeping Beauty
Written and Directed by: Julia Leigh
Starring: Emily Browning, Rachael Blake, and Peter Carroll
Director of Photography: Geoffrey Simpsons, Editor: Nick Meyers, Production Designer: Annie Beauchamp, Original Music: Ben Frost
Rated: Not Rated, but a “children’s” fairy tale this is not.

            Lucy, the quiet and seemingly self-assured protagonist of Sleeping Beauty, is not one to care what happens to her body. In the film’s opening scene, she participates as a lab rat where a research assistant sticks some sort of long contraption down her throat, all the way down to her stomach. Phallic intentions need not be mentioned, but Lucy doesn’t mind; as long as she gets paid for her work, she has no interest in how her body is used.

            And Sleeping Beauty, the first film from an Australian novelist named Julia Leigh (and produced by Jane Campion), is a commentary on the female body with its extremely cryptic narrative involving the story of a woman who is willingly used and abused by those around her. Ms. Leigh is obviously making a feminist parable, but her choices of how we can read the film are so slight and never made explicit that the film is undoubtedly watchable and impossible to ignore. Whether you like the film or not could be a divisive question, but Ms. Leigh and her star Emily Browning have made a film that is certainly going to challenge you at every step.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Shame: Man Seeks Woman, and a Whole Lot More

Directed By: Steve McQueen
Written By: Abi Morgan and Steve McQueen
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Carey Muligan, James Badge Dale, Nicole Beharie, and Lucy Walters.
Director of Photography: Sean Bobbitt, Editor: Joe Walker, Production Designer: Judy Becker, Original Music: Harry Escott
Rated: NC-17 for graphic sexual content and Michael Fassbender’s Fass-member.

            Shame, the second feature from British artist Steve McQueen, opens on a shot from top down on its main character, Brandon, sprawled naked across his bed. But he only takes up half the frame, the other half highlighting his empty grayish blue sheets. The painterly quality of this image is of course no surprise to those who know Mr. McQueen, a conceptual artist that has only recently moved into filmmaking. But it also highlights the emptiness that surrounds Brandon; in a world where he can have anything, still finds himself longing for something, anything, to fill the void of his life.

            Mr. McQueen’s first film, Hunger, was an audaciously bold and formalistically polarizing debut that followed the British IRA hunger strikes in the late 1970s. Mr. McQueen, uninterested in politics, focused on the control and degradation of the body, and the mental power to command such an organism. It was also the first film to introduce us to Michael Fassbender, who went on to starring roles in Fish Tank, Jane Eyre, A Dangerous Method, and now plays Brandon in Shame. And if Hunger was about the complete control of the body, Shame is about a body that constantly feeds in order to keep the mental state from absolute disaster.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Revisited: Steve McQueen Discusses the Politics of the Body in "Hunger"

A complete unknown in the film a few years ago, Steve McQueen has become an art house and festival favorite with only two films. This week sees the release of his highly anticipated film, Shame, which stars Michael Fassbender as a sex addict in New York. The film (reviewed at the New York Film Festival here) marks the second collaboration between the director and actor. Their first film, Hunger, debuted in 2008 to critical raves and won Mr. McQueen the Camera D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival for best debut feature. Below is a piece on Mr. McQueen written during the film’s US release in March 2009. Hunger is available on DVD from the Criterion Collection, and I highly recommend it to anyone compelled about Shame.

Despite a similar name, director Steve McQueen is not the same one who rode the motorcycle in The Great Escape. The Black British artist has been working in visual arts for many years, but Hunger, a devastating and brutal film about the 1981 Irish Republican Army Hunger strikes led by Bobby Sands, is his first feature film. Lunged over in his chair with an astute pair of glasses, Mr. McQueen spoke sternly at the Meatpacking District Hotel where we met, occasionally sipping on a fresh tea and taking long pauses before every answer. Mr. McQueen explained that this was a story he needed to tell, “Young people talk about Abu Grahib and Guantanamo but don’t even know what happened in their own backyard 27 years ago.”

            Hunger is a mostly silent film that tells the story of the people within a prison known in the United Kingdom as “The Maze,” where a number of IRA prisoners participated in a series of dirty protests (no cleaning or shaving) and eventually turned into a hunger strike. The purpose? To regain their status as political prisoners, instead of simply regular criminals.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

(Not) Talking Movies: Michel Hazanavicius Discusses "The Artist"

            It may comes as a surprise, but the front runner for this year’s Oscars is a black and white silent movie from France with no movie stars. However, it is an homage to the classic Hollywood era, full of references to masterful films and featuring the glamour of the 1920s. That’s the conceit of The Artist (reviewed here), a film from French director Michel Hazanavicius. His previous films include two spy comedies called OSS 117, which starred Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo, who here star as two actors who must deal with the coming of sound as Hollywood transitions. Earlier this year at the New York Film Festival, the director and stars, along with the producer Thomas Langmon, discussed the bold project to bring silent film to a mainstream audience.

The origin of the project

Michel Hazanavicius: The first impulse was to make a silent movie, and I felt it was not something so easy to connect with. Just talking about making this movie, people were saying to me, “Why do you want to make a silent movie?” And the answer was, “Well I want to” but it was not enough. So I had many options for a script—well, maybe two options—but one of them was this one. I think it was maybe easier for to accept to watch a silent movie if the subject is a silent actor.

Collaborating with the same actors

MH: They inspired me—both of them. When I met Thomas [Langmon], he really wanted to make a movie with me. I said, “Okay; we can make a movie together, but I want to make a silent movie.” And he said, “Okay.” And then I said, “I want to do it with Jean, Berenice, Guillaume, who is the cinematographer, and Ludovic, who wrote the music composer.” And he said, “Okay.” So they really inspired the characters and I used them in the writing and I really wrote it for them.

Producing a silent movie

Thomas Langmon: Well I had a lot of concerns. But I thought, maybe, yes today, with such a gifted director and my adoration for Michel, I wanted to work with for a long time, I thought yes. When he spoke about making a silent movie, I thought, especially for a producer, “Silent…black and white…” well that’s really not what’s expected…But I thought Michel could succeed in making a silent black and white movie with this love story and if we had to chance to set it in Hollywood to work with American actors, people who wanted a very small part, then it would make it real and with the talent of Michel, it would then make a very good movie.

Hugo: The Past, Present and Future of Cinema, All Collided Into One

Directed By: Martin Scorsese
Written By: John Logan, based on the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick
Starring: Asa Butterfield, Chloe Grace Mortez, Sacha Baron Cohen, Ben Kingsley, Ray Winstone, Emily Mortimer, Christopher Lee, Helen McCrory, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Jude Law
Director of Photographer: Robert Richardson, Editor: Thelma Schoonmaker, Production Designer: Dante Ferretti, Original Music: Howard Shore
Rated: PG           

            In 1989, film history Tom Gunning wrote a highly influential essay entitled “The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde.” Mr. Gunning examined how film historians had written about the early yore of silent cinema and its push toward narrative cinema. But he proposed that the attraction of the works of Thomas Edison and the Lumiere brothers was not based on seeing stories, but seeing things move. The cinema itself, the spectacle of movement, was its primary attraction. Stories came later; cinema was born out of this attraction of the possibilities of cinema could show or do anything we could think up.

            It is this love of spectacle that has obviously drawn Martin Scorsese to make one of his most ambitious, pictures of his career and one of his most self-conscious films. Hugo, an adaptation of a young adult novel by Brian Selznick looks like a strange departure for a director as it follows a story of a child in somewhat of a fairy tale. But Hugo is much more than that, a bold, genre-crossing picture that is both narrative and spectacle, and ultimately a film essay on the importance of the origins of cinema, and the need to preserve classic film as well.

The Muppets: The Rainbow Connection to the Past

The Muppets
Directed By: James Bobin
Written By: Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller, based on the characters created by Jim Henson
Starring: Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Rashida Jones, Chris Cooper, and the Muppets
Director of Photography: Don Burgess, Editor: James Thomas, Production Designer: Steve Saklad, Original Music: Christopher Beck, Original Songs: Bret McKenzie
Rated: PG for Muppet related humor.

            Gonzo. When I was a kid, my hero was Gonzo the Great. I was weird, and a bit crazy, and identified with the big, blue-nosed lunatic that always dreamed of become a great daredevil, though always failing. How could you not love such a dreamer?

            Heck, how can anyone not love the Muppets? The fantastic puppet creations by Jim Henson started with their SNL-like sketch show in the early 1970s, going on the inspire countless movies (three considered canon, the rest with their moments of comic genius but most forgettable). Since Mr. Henson’s death in 1990, many thought the Muppets have become the great comics of a past generation, relics of a forgotten era. But one only needs to pull up Youtube videos of Fozzie’s stand-up, Animal’s drumming, or Honeydew’s lab for proof that their comedy is timeless.

            In an age where our comedy has become much more cynical, could the Muppets find a place? That’s the hope of the latest film, simply titled The Muppets. The film is the brainchild of Forgetting Sarah Marshall duo Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller, who you may remember ended that film with a puppet musical of Dracula. It’s obvious from the first moments of their latest film that Mr. Segel (who stars along with the delightful Amy Adams) and Mr. Stoller are Muppet devotees, and their great nostalgia shows along every frame of this film. In fact, few films are more nostalgia whoring than The Muppets, which means fans of those guys will go bonkers for this latest iteration, which I sure as hell did.

The Artist: Smiles of a Silent Era

The Artist
Written and Directed By: Michel Hazanavicius
Starring: Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, John Goodman, and James Cromwell
Director of Photography: Guillaume Schiffman, Editors: Anne-Sophie Bion and Michel Hazanavicius, Production Designer: Laurence Bennett, Original Score: Ludovic Bource
Rated: PG-13 for the only silent way to swear and a few disturbing images.

            The opening scene of The Artist, a mainstream delight shot in a very classical matter, is one of the film’s many in-jokes, as we see a handsome man being electrocuted in a chair. “Talk!” scream the men torturing him. Well, they don’t scream it—a title card tells us that’s what they are shouting as their mouths open but we here only the chimes and whistles of Ludovic Bource’s score. Soon enough, the film cuts out to a full-house theater watching the silent flick, but the illusion doesn’t stop. When the audience screams, the only sound is violins, and when the applause comes at the end, we hear only the joy of silence.

            The Artist is an homage to the good ol’ era of silent filmmaking made in the style: black and white, 4:3 aspect ratio, title cards for dialogue, and (save for two smartly used sequences) only music to take us through the narrative. It is of course also an extremely self-aware film, following two movie stars at transitional periods of their lives in the heyday of Hollywood. The director behind this project, however, is a Frenchman named Michel Hazanavicius, and the two stars, Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo, are French as well. But just because they don’t come from the US doesn’t mean they can’t appreciate the day when words meant nothing and gestures and expressions were at the heart of Hollywood.

Rampart: A Monster Ordered to Protect and Serve

Directed By: Oren Moverman
Written By: James Ellory and Oren Movermann
Starring: Woody Harrleson, Sigourney Weaver, Ned Beatty, Steve Buscemi, Ben Foster, Robin Wright, Ice Cube, Anne Hesche, and Brie Larson
Director of Photography: Bobby Bukowski, Editor: Jay Rabinowitz, Production Designer: David Wasco, Original Music: Dickon Hinchliffe
Rated: R

            Rampart begins with a series of profile shots of police officer Dave Brown driving through the streets of Los Angeles. Sporting a pair of black shades with gold rims and often one (and sometimes two!) cigarettes in his mouth, we get a good look at a man who we can’t see because those shades create a mirror. Who is this man behind the glasses and why is he so angry? But you can’t explain what drives “Date Rape” Dave, a nickname he got for allegedly murdering a known rapist. He simply exists in a world where he believes his corruption is not just legally fine, but the invisible hand of justice, where he is detective, court, and executioner, all tied into one.

            And so begins a violent and often brilliant new drama from writer-director Oren Moverman, who last brought us the intense war drama The Messenger. Here, Mr. Moverman has teamed up with the legendary pulp novelist James Ellory (The Black Dahlia, L.A. Confidential) to bring us a story of justice run completely amuck, but without any heavy hand giving us some liberal message about it. Rampart takes it title from the infamous scandals in the LA Police division in 1999, where the film takes place, but Mr. Moverman and Mr. Ellroy move the story to instead a fictional man who is coming in much too close contact with both physical and mental demons.